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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Happy Garden Palace

The name of this restaurant almost inevitably makes me think of my friend Pace. An enthusiastic and knowledgeable dining companion--on the rare occasions I can actually convince him to pry his ass out of his apartment and join me, that is--he is convinced that Sripraphai, which he simply refers to as "Unpronounceable", is actually Thai for "Lucky Dragon Bamboo Hut". I'd be curious to know if Happy Garden Palace really is the English translation of its Chinese name.

This place seems pretty obviously to be geared towards Fujianese immigrants in New York that want a hearty, inexpensive meal like they might get back home (and boy, is it inexpensive!). It's open until 2:00 a.m., and, based on a couple of visits, appears to be a small gathering place for folks who want a late-night beer or snack after work. As you might expect, there is zero "atmosphere" here.

No matter, though--the food is fantastic. Generous dishes that fairly scream "home cooking"--MY kind of food! "Red wine lees"--Fuzhou red wine fermented with glutinous rice--figures in lots of the dishes here, and it adds several flavor dimensions difficult to describe: wine-y, yes, but also slightly vinegary, slightly sweet, and fairly earthy. Case in point: tonight's Spare Rib Fuzhou Style (Fuzhou is the capital city of Fujian). Spare ribs dusted in with corn starch and fried, and if I'm not mistaken, there was some orange along with wine lees in the complex sauce. Salt chicken was a) a bargain, at 6 bucks for a half a chicken, and b) apparently really the result of having been preserved in salt. Perhaps a bit drier than what other places offer under similar names, it had a real "preserved" taste and texture--I thought it was great. Pork fried rice was delicious and everything it should be... first and foremost, it was white, not the brownish travesty one gets at Americanized Chinese restaurants. On a whim, I also ordered a taro cake (cost: 60 whole cents), which turned out to very similar to turnip cake dim sum. I have no idea how this is traditionally eaten, but I confess I kept wishing for a little dish of oyster sauce to dip it in like one gets in the Cantonese dim sum houses.

Earlier in the week I had what is my favorite dish here so far, the Beef Stew with Curry in Casserole. Interestingly, curry was the least obvious element of the dish. Wine lees, once again, yes... something like cinnamon or star anise, ginger, garlic and sesame oil. But curry was only in the background. Utterly delicious. And their "Golden Silver Egg Fried Rice" was somehow much more than the sum of its parts: egg, a bit of scallion, and rice. It was perfectly cooked--light, moist... ambrosia.

There is a huge list of "over rice" dishes that includes a generous selection of their entrees, and they are all around 4 dollars for a quite sizable plate of food. Fujian is especially famous for its soups, and I'm looking forward to cooler weather so I can work my way through their list of two dozen or so.

Happy Garden Palace
54 East Broadway, New York 10002

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